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Life in (virtual) pit lane: The war stories of video game car design

Enlarge / Variety is the spice of life, and Forza Motorsport 7 has a lot of variety. Early racing games, though? Phew

Like it or not, there’s no denying that the entire history of video games as a popular medium can be told through the steady evolution of three simple acts: shooting a pistol, jumping from platform to platform, and redlining a car’s engine. Even as gaming has democratized over the past decade—with eased access to development tools like Unity ensuring that more offbeat or intellectual fare has the chance to find an audience—the traditional big-budget core of the market has become even more monolithic. Today, only a handful of so-called triple-A developers churns out a steady stream of military-taupe shooters like Call of Duty or sun-spangled racers like Turn 10 Studio’s Forza series.

For that last category of gaming fans, this thinning at the top has devastated the once-diverse racing genre, largely due to the ever-increasing technological standards and demands of today. Players continue to thirst for the feeling of gliding a Lamborghini around a gentle curve rendered as accurately as possible, and only a handful of studios currently has the budget or the infrastructure to keep up.

But if you talk with veteran artists who put hours and hours into these games over the years, this technological arms race has always whirred beneath the shining surface of the pristine racing sims that players know and love. Today, Turn 10 and others continue to push the boundaries of photorealism past the “uncanny valley,” but 25 years ago it took a similar amount of dedication and know-how simply to make any car appear 3D rather than 2D.

Like any good technological evolution (say, mobile gaming’s long road from the Game Boy to the smartphone), the tinkerers driving major changes demonstrated extreme resourcefulness right alongside ol’ fashioned innovation. As the following war stories attest, through the years, each of these scrappy studios struggled to take the inside line from their fellow developers. Instead, they advanced the genre by jumping and maneuvering through a wide variety of devious technological hoops, despite each seeming impassable at the time.

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Mmmm, Motorhead

Physics and PS1

Joakim Wejdemar is the founder and president of Valkyrie Entertainment, an “outsourcing” studio based in Seattle that produces assets for some of the biggest studios in gaming. But before he moved to the US, he got his start at Digital Illusions in Sweden, the studio better known as EA DICE. Back in the late ’90s—before DICE made its name with the Battlefield series, which later led to its acquisition by industry titan EA—the then-Gothenburg-based developer churned out pixel-art pinball games for personal computers like the Amiga. These games attempted to replicate the frantic fun of a real-life table. And after a few projects, Wejdemar ended up as one of the seven-or-so-strong team behind Motorhead.

“We were trying to do two hard things at once,” he says. “It was our first 3D game and our first racing game, so it was very experimental. Most of the people in the industry in Europe came over from the demo scene, which was basically just a bunch of kids competing to make the best tech demos. They were flashy, very striking, and we brought that to the games. Back then, it wasn’t about the story or the content of the game, really—it was about having the best lens flare.”